Black socks in the hour of chaos

Contrast I watched ESPN’s Fab 5 Documentary the night before I left for vacation and very much enjoyed it, lamenting the fact that I wouldn’t have time to weigh in on Jalen Rose’s comments about Duke. Considering the instant-gratification Twitter-borne sports culture we live in, I assumed that by the time I got back a week later, it would be a non-issue.

It was to my surprise when I got back that it was even more a topic than it had been before I left. I still need a late pass, since the approaching baseball season has sucked up a lot of my time since then, but it’s still on my mind.

Grant Hill did his part to escalate the discussion with a surprisingly knee-jerk New York Times op-ed piece that mirrored a lot of Duke fans’ thoughts on the matter and verily missed the point, glossing over that Rose was not labeling Duke’s black players “Uncle Toms,” but relaying that this was his stance as a teenager, and that of his teammates.

Mind you, though Rose never said it was still his stance today, he didn’t exactly go out of his way to insist that it wasn’t. And though Hill couldn’t see his viewpoint, I can’t say I don’t.

Rose’s big error here — besides apparently driving drunk — was invoking the term “Uncle Tom,” a charged phrase that connotes African-Americans selling out their race. But Rose was misusing it; rather than casting blame on his peers for taking advantage of an offered opportunity to go to Duke, he was hinting at the bitterness and jealousy he cultivated at the time for not having that same offer. Guys like Hill and Brian Davis were merely traitors by circumstance.

Meanwhile, as the documentary even mentioned in a slight nod to the self-admitted flaws in Rose’s reasoning, Chris Webber at certain points very much appeared to be headed to Duke, and nobody would have considered him a sellout if he had gone there.

(Sidebar: It blows my mind how good that Duke team would have been. I mean, they won a title anyway, but Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Hill and Webber? You could have modern-day Eddy Curry at shooting guard and it’d still be hands-down one of the greatest teams of all time.  I’m pretty sure Duke with Webber wouldn’t have lost to Jason Kidd in 1993, either.)

But that’s not to say I can’t see where Rose is coming from.

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the supreme ethnic significance of those Ewing Georgetown teams. But the contrarians who claim that Rose fabricated the reach of the Fab 5 are most certainly mischaracterizing how popular and influential they truly were in both the hood and the suburbs, and also ignoring the fact that Rose’s opinions were almost certainly authentic.

*****

I was in middle school during the Fab 5, and Duke and Michigan were at very different ends of the spectrum. Though I didn’t care for Duke — they won too damn much — I remember them being very popular, primarily because of local product Bobby Hurley, who everyone respected.

Duke was represented by sneering golden child Christian Laettner, he of back-to-back titles and a spot on the Dream Team that should have gone to Shaquille O’Neal. Even after The Shot vs. Kentucky, Laettner wasn’t a widely beloved player, perceived as surly and arrogant, projecting an air of entitlement that hovered over the rest of the program. Want to get to the root of Duke hatred? Of course, it emanates from Laettner.

As for me, at 12 years old I thought that Fab 5 team was awesome, mostly because of Webber. I liked Penny Hardaway too, but that draft-day trade rankled me; I longed for the not-meant-to-be tandem of Shaquille and Webber on the front line together in Orlando. I had two Webber jerseys, Michigan and Golden State, and I actually became more fascinated with him when he called that time out against UNC. Equal parts skilled and explosive, he’d still forever bear that scarlet TO as a reminder of that fatally flawed lapse in judgment.

Years afterward, Webber would have a different cross to bear, having taken Ed Martin’s money. And of course, Duke later had its own Webber/Ed Martin situation with Corey Maggette taking money from Myron Piggie. Which brings up yet another hypocrisy in Rose’s stance at the time — the Fab 5 and Duke were cogs in the same wheel.

You can’t sell a jersey with a player’s name on it, at least not while they’re still enrolled in school, but I remember when I was at Duke, the price tag on No. 31 jerseys in the campus store had the code “SBAT31 JERSEY” on it. You didn’t have to read much between the lines to see they were making money off Shane Battier, which perhaps was among the factors instigating his fledgling idea at the time of getting stipends for college basketball players.

Granted, these players have the opportunity to get a degree if they so choose, but even the value of that paper pales in comparison to the amount of money they make for their school and for Nike. That vigilance likely led Webber to “get his” out of spite, as the documentary claims most of that happened between the end of his sophomore season and his No. 1 selection in the NBA Draft.

*****

As I said, Rose’s “Uncle Tom” comments reference a somewhat flawed ideology and certainly a flawed terminology dating back to his teenage years, but there remains some basis to his feelings of alienation today.

I feel like Hill, and a lot of other people, missed Rose’s point that Duke absolutely attempts to recruit a different type of person, regardless of race — not that there’s anything wrong with that — than other schools, and isn’t bashful about promoting themselves as such.

There’s a drastic difference in perception between Duke’s smooth, take-them-home-to-mom stars — Battier, Hill, Trajan Langdon, Kyle Singler, J.J. Redick, Jon Scheyer, et al. — and everyone else. That’s by design.

It’s not brain surgery here: Krzyzewski hand-picks the players he thinks he can win with, the ones that who most willingly buy into his system. That’s what every successful coach does, or at least what they should try to do.

It’s not a stereotype that Krzyzewski tends to bring in congenial guys who more often than not come from a strong family background. I think he believes a stable home situation makes them best equipped to learn from him, while at the same time keeping their noses clean. It’s no coincidence that a lot of his recruits are sons of players and/or coaches.

Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I can only think of two players since I started there in 1997 that you could say came from a position of true economic disadvantage: Elton Brand and Chris Carrawell. Both were great guys and amazingly successful at Duke.

However, Brand’s incredible intercepted e-mail to a Duke student who had criticized him for leaving early showed that he perhaps — justifiably — didn’t always feel as if he was in his element. From Slam:

"She didn’t know my background. I ain’t come from money like a Christian Laettner or a Grant Hill or even like Shane [Battier]. She didn’t know my background, so for her to just go off on me…you know I had to say something."

Sounds familiar, right? And that’s a guy who went to Duke.

Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way Duke selects their recruits. The program is enormously successful, I like that they get likable guys and I enjoy their brand of ball when everything’s working right. I’m proud to have had the opportunity to go there and sit courtside to root for the team.

But ironically, I’d suggest that Hill’s inability and unwillingness to empathize with Rose’s position only serves to validate it as having at least some degree of basis in reality.

Of course, it goes both ways: Rose’s comments also demonstrate why he was not a player Duke would have been interested in.

I think Krzyzewski is justified to build his program any way he wants. His results speak for themselves; he’s a terrific coach, a wonderful teacher and a good man who I’m glad to have had the opportunity to get to know a bit, and I liked personally almost all of the Duke players I’ve met.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t walk a few miles in Rose’s Huaraches.

Esoteric

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